March 2, 2016

GLANZEL | Cornell Needs to Conserve

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American higher education is facing an ever-growing plague of exploding tuition costs.  Currently, the average tuition rate for private schools stands at an eye-popping $32,405 –– and the number keeps growing. As each year passes, more and more students contribute to the ballooning student debt bubble (which currently totals $1.2 trillion). And considering the modern job market all but demands at least a bachelor’s degree, America’s student loan crisis is set to grow even further. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to look into how the nation’s colleges and universities can effectively respond to this growing crisis. To examine where changes can be made, I suggest that we look at the micro-level — specifically, we need to look at how changes can be made at a single university. And what better place to look than Cornell?

This university is one of the most expensive colleges in America, where students are charged a jaw-dropping $50,000 per year in tuition (and another $15,000 per year in housing, books and food). Furthermore, for much of the past year, Cornellians have faced endless problems with the university’s administration. The combination of the new $350 health fee, yearly three to four percent tuition hikes (hikes that are more than twice the rate of inflation), and endless nickel and diming (I’m looking at you gym, printing and parking fees), has left many Cornellians feeling as if they are drowning in a vast sea of university expenses.

Among the most vulnerable of Cornellians are those from the middle class.  Middle class students are trapped in a dangerous “no man’s land” of paying for Cornell: their parents cannot simply hand them the money to pay for their expenses while financial aid isn’t nearly enough to adequately cover costs.  And so, it is these students who are forced to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to cover their expenses.  In my case, I currently sit on a mountain of debt totaling $55,000 –– and I’m only a sophomore.

If Cornell, and the American system of higher education in general, is serious about dealing with the issue of student costs, then cost cutting must be at the center of the discussion. Throughout the past two decades, Cornell and other universities have undergone a period of excessive waste and spending. If we truly want to fight student debt, we must fight spending first.

An obvious first step is for the university to cut back on the number of buildings it constructs each year. Cornell just finished construction on Klarman Hall, is currently building additions to Gannett, Stocking Hall and Kimball Hall, and is building a brand new campus on Roosevelt Island (costing an estimated $2 billion). Certainly, each of these constructions are not coming at the expense of tuition dollars, as private donations and funds from the University’s endowment are being used to cover the costs. But there is a larger point to be made from these buildings.  Each new construction demands heating, air-conditioning, plumbing, water, internet, electricity, cleaning supplies and janitors. And guess what? While you may not be paying for the buildings to be built, you are definitely paying for their upkeep.  So the more buildings Cornell constructs, the more you have to pay for water, heat, electricity, and so on.

A less obvious and more controversial step is to take a hard look at the number of the University’s employees. Currently, the number of non-academic employees is more than three times the number of faculty. The University employs over 6,000 non-academic staff members –– all of which have full-time salaries, pensions and benefits that are paid for by tuition dollars. Of these 6,000 plus employees, only 1,090 hold positions as janitors or service workers. Cornell’s mass army of administrators, clerical and professional staff, however, stands at more than 4,500. According to several statistics, the vast abundance of these non-academic employees has done little to help the university. For example, over the past 15 years the number of administrative staff in the department charged with increasing campus diversity has steadily increased.  Yet the University has not seen a major increase in the number of students and faculty members of color over the same period of time. So, what is the use in hiring these new employees?

Though many are frustrated with Cornell for a variety of reasons, I believe the great betrayal of the University’s students lies with the administration’s inability to consider the damning effects of exploding tuition. The lack of concern for the financial health of the University’s students is not only economically reckless, but morally reprehensible. Not only are students saddled with burdensome high interest loans that will forever follow them, but the university is also contributing to the ever-growing student debt bubble that threatens the economic well-being of this nation. So, if Cornell and the nation’s system of higher education want to help combat the growing problem of university finance, they better learn to live within their means.

Michael Glanzel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mg786@cornell.edu. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Thursdays this semester. 

5 thoughts on “GLANZEL | Cornell Needs to Conserve

  1. Although I agree with your theme, there are several problems in your post:

    “where students are charged a jaw-dropping $50,000 per year in tuition” – not all students.

    Are there sources for these? “Middle class students are trapped in a dangerous “no man’s land” of paying for Cornell” “Throughout the past two decades, Cornell and other universities have undergone a period of excessive waste and spending.”

    Not true. Tuition doesn’t cover as much as you think it does “While you may not be paying for the buildings to be built, you are definitely paying for their upkeep…The University employs over 6,000 non-academic staff members –– all of which have full-time salaries, pensions and benefits that are paid for by tuition dollars.”

    Show us the numbers: “Yet the University has not seen a major increase in the number of students and faculty members of color over the same period of time.”

    Recent years have seen increases at a decreasing rate “exploding tuition”

  2. This article hits on several key points. Well done. I always found it absurd that students with a meal plan on West Canpus are “given” Big Red Bucks to spend in preordained locations (such as Jansen’s and Café Jennie). These BRBs cannot be refunded into cash, cannot be denied to reduce a student’s total costs, and the majority of the offerings one can purchase with them are not healthy alternatives to our magnificent dining hall food.

    In essence, Cornell creates a false supply of consumers for snacks and sodas which would not be as in demand if students were not forced to take (and pay for) hundreds of Big Red Bucks every semester. This artificial circuit keeps food suppliers happy, as their goods are still purchased and consumed.

    So in regards to BRBs…cui bono?

  3. While making a strong argument that uninhibited spending is a poor moral choice for university administrators, the author fails to acknowledge individual responsibility for his own economic choices. College is not a prize to be won, but a fit to be made. Too many people seek name brand validation. Perhaps a school with a less well known name would have offered substantial financial aid to an obviously talented student. These are important issues to be discussed; what are the individual’s, the educational institution’s and society’s respective obligations to make college affordable? This is a continuing and changing conversation, and eighteen year olds have to make their own individual decision when college rolls around. While I admire the author’s willingness to highlight the implications of decisions made by Cornell and the impact it will have on all students, present and future, and not just himself, no doubt some portion of Cornell’s decisions are driven by the arms race in admissions. Everyone has some responsibility in the craziness here, although the responsibility of trustees and administrators would seem to trump those of the individual applicant, yet collectively, the desire to capture some of those applicants (and applicants’ seemingly irrational economic decisions to favor highly ranked schools which may not lead to better economic outcomes) drives some measure of unnecessary spending. At least Cornell spends largely for academic reasons; Cornell’s spending on lavish housing or perks and fancy student gyms pales compared to other schools. Some of the responsibility is also political; states have defunded their investment in higher education dramatically over the past 50 years. In the end, however, your student debt is within your control. It’s a harsh reality, and an unfair one, too. Cornell should be more aware of the deep debt its students acquire, but in the end, no one makes you sign those loans. Each person is still responsible for his or her own economic future. Keep lobbying for accountability though–your voice is a strong one with strong arguments. And perhaps you should feel the Bern.

  4. Universities are in a race with each other. Cornell can’t cut back on the number of buildings it builds, that would make it a lot less attractive to wealthy students and their parents, as well as top researchers. Their funding would go down.

    Top university administrations have to do things to maintain and advance the prestige of their universities. Cornell is expanding in Roosevelt Island in part so it can increase it’s collaborations with NYC private companies for tech research and other purposes. A lot of Cornell’s fundraising already happens because the medical school is in the wealthy Upper East Side. I can tell you as someone who is currently a grad students for masters programs and professional schools you have to pay in cash or take out student loans. If you’re a stellar candidate you can get teaching or research fellowships while you work on your phd.

    The OP is going to have to make his education work for him. I would say in the vast majority of fields that one needs to go to GRAD school to truly do well in the field. So the OP is going to have to figure out how to pay for grad school at some point.

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